Thursday, 26 January 2012

The case for comprehensive environmental monitoring

Frodsham sits on a hill - a Town surrounded on 3 sides by beautiful Cheshire countryside and to the North we have the heavy industrial complexes along most of the Mersey Estuary.  The industrial complex is soon to expand yet further with the Ince Resource Recovery Park - touted that it will be the UK's largest resource recovery park when built.  In addition to this we have the Western Point incinerator complex being constructed to the north.

Now not unnaturally the Peel Covanta joint venture portray their proposed complex of incinerators and other businesses that will 'recover resources' - in the best possible light - it would be wrong to expect them to do otherwise.  However in these cynical days when we are increasingly mistrustful of words - is this in fact counter-productive?

The locals in Frodsham, Helsby and no doubt the other surrounding communities are concerned that the large and expanding  industrial complexes could cause damage to their health or to the environment.  This is a perception - and not necessarily based on scientific evidence.  They want reassurance.  A number of us are pressing for the Peel Covanta joint venture - either by themselves, or by them galvanising support from the surrounding industrial sites to institute regular and sustained environmental monitoring for the entire area over and above that required by the regulators - and for that monitoring to be independently managed and scrutinised and started before operations are commenced at their site.

This is because the communities are also distrustful of the regulators and the regulatory regime ostensibly there to protect them.

Effectively the proposition goes like this - the regulatory regime will require you to monitor on site, at the site boundary and perhaps for some distance beyond.  However it won't require you to monitor necessarily in the heart of our residential communities - which is where people live and have their concerns.  Given the size of the industrial complexes - the height of the chimneys - and the implicit dispersion to the atmosphere of whatever goes up the chimney and the risk of it 'falling-out' onto the local communities we want reassurance - ever before we think of air turbulence caused by the hills (or any wind-farm).

Now Peel said last night they were unaware of this concern.  Ironically had Peel properly engaged with the community from the start this level of concern should not have come as a surprise to them.

Undoubtedly instituting a wide-ranging suite of environmental monitoring for this entire North Cheshire/ Mersey Estuary will come at a cost - however in the global scheme of things - a trivial cost when compared with the turnover and profitability of the present and intended industrial concerns.  And the return for this cost - and assuming independence and full disclosure of the data collected - community peace of mind - which would be priceless.

I won't bore you too much with the ragged interface between the planning regime and the Environment Agency's permitting regime - other than to say - blithe commitments made in a planning document that the applicant 'shall not' cause 'unacceptable' impacts to the environment and health may not be capable of enforcement in terms that the layman or the wider community would find intelligible or acceptable... and if I'm right on this we may find ourselves having to doubt the very words being used and the comfort they are intended to bring.  

I challenged the EA and the planners last night in direct questions at a Community Forum about who will enforce this commitment regarding 'unacceptable impacts' and did not get reassuring answers.  This may be because the constraints of the planning and EA permitting regimes don't allow either or both agencies to require the environmental monitoring regime that the communities instinctively want. 

Now there is a way out of this troubling conundrum.  The Peel Covanta joint venture could commit to provide this wider environmental monitoring voluntarily - and make it a permanent commitment through what is called a unilateral undertaking.  I have implored them to 'get out in front' of this environmental debate - put themselves in the minds of the concerned community.  Get themselves 'on the side of the angels'.  Just imagine, God forbid, that we do get this wider environmental monitoring and it finds something before any of these new enterprises fire up.  Now that would be a real service to the community, and, of course would serve to protect the new businesses. 

Is this too much to ask or expect?